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Sarah rose up through the dry sage and the shimmering heat as she climbed the hill toward her father and the huge horse. She carried a pail of water and a bundle wrapped in dark red cloth. Where the sagebrush ended and the plowing began she stopped to poke at the fresh earth with her bare foot. For a moment she peered down at something hidden in the ground, then continued across the new-plowed furrows to where her father waited. She turned and looked back. "Something strange is buried there, near the edge of the field," she said.
He took a drink from the waterskin and studied her dark, almond eyes and her burnished cheeks. Perhaps she was teasing. "Is it stone?" he asked, as the field did not lack for stone.
His dry, skeptical tone brought a wry smile to her face. "Yes," she said, "it's made of stone, but it's not like the others."
He was large and strong. A piece of faded red cloth covered his head like a small turban. His face, darkened by the sun and dirt, made the white of his eyes bright and intense. To a stranger he would be a crazy man, but to Sarah he was her father, who was Aesa, a farmer covered with the dirt of his field.
They ate their lunch of goat cheese, black bread, and boiled eggs. Horatio the plowhorse drank from the pail.
Sarah watched her father and wondered what it felt like to be so tall and strong, to leave deep footprints in the soft dirt of the plowed field. But he had no words for his life and that made him a mystery to her.
He blocked the burning sun from his eyes and studied the hot, dying hills to the west. Never had so much died for lack of rain. He drank from the waterskin, spilling the cool water overhis lips and down his neck. The pure taste, the clean stone smell, and the simple joy of drinking water brought a thought into his head that was completely new to him, and dreadful. He peered into the mouth of the waterskin and asked, "What would happen if . . . ?" but he stopped. He stared out across the field, searching for another thought.
Sarah heard something in his voice, something small but sharp. She insisted: "If what, Father?"
He said nothing. She looked at him, demanding the "if what." His dark eyes looked into hers and he said, "If our well went dry?"
"No water at all?" she asked. He answered with a nod so slight she barely noticed.
There was always water in the well. She watched the horse, his muzzle pressed firmly against the bottom of the pail, savoring his last drink until evening. "Horatio would be thirsty," she said, making a game of her father's question.
"Yes," he said. "What else?"
"We'd all be thirsty. The garden too."
"And what happens if the garden dries up?"
"Plants die." She gouged a furrow with her heel in the dry earth and thought about the green garden. She studied his eyes for signs of play.
She found only the serious, dazed eyes of a farmer in a drought. His voice searched for the thread of his thoughts: "When it rains . . . some goes like a mist . . . into the air . . . and some goes through roots . . . to plants. But some goes deep into the ground. Where do you think it goes?"
"Rain goes into our well?"
He nodded and ate his lunch and let her have her thoughts.
She wrapped her sinewy arms around her knees and rocked back and forth with her toes. Finally she asked, "How does the rain find the well?"
"We dug the well to where the water flows."
She looked at the plowed ground between her feet: "You mean there's a river deep down?"
"Yes, like a river." He reached down and pressed his hard callused hand into the dry earth, then looked up at the sky. "There's been no rain for a long time."
She was embarrassed that she knew so little about the well. She tried to picture the river underground and waited for her father to finish what he meant to say.
Finally he said, "I don't think the well will go dry, my pretty child."
The words "my pretty child" stuck like thistles in her thoughts and made her feel small. She stood, long-backed and straight, and felt the warm earth under her bare feet. She looked at him. "If it doesn't rain on the field we won't have grain for bread or porridge. What will we do if there's no rain?"
Aesa had not expected this. He wondered how little he knew his daughter and said the simple truth, "We'll have to leave."
"Where will we go?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said and hoped his desperation was not carried in his words.
She pretended to hear what he wanted her to hear: a heart so confident that it could say "I don't know," and feel no fear. "We could go to your grandmother's, couldn't we?" she asked.
He looked down at her and smiled and, in a dreamy way that made her laugh, he said, "Yes, that's just where we'll go."
She watched the huge horse sniff at his empty pail. The dark patterns of loam and sweat on his neck and flanks revealed a story of muscle bound to bone. She walked through the dry dirt, patted his silky muzzle, and rubbed the horn nubbin between his ears.
She tied her fine black hair behind her head with the red cloth, picked up the empty pail, and crossed the plowed furrows, pushing clods into the loose dirt with her heels. At the edge of the field she stopped and looked down at the thing hidden in dirt: a straight, black edge of stone.
"A slate," she thought, like her own, though much largermore than four times the length of her foot and nearly as wide. She knelt down and dug the dirt away with her hands. Near the top on one side was a long, gray gouge that ended at a chipped edge. This mark seemed clean and new. She decided it was made by her father's plow.
Below the gouge she felt, then saw, a strange thing that made her eyes widen: letters cut in stonea curious kind of writing she had never seen. The shapes of the letters reminded her of bean vines and pea pods. And there were slashes like the thin red petals of flowers that grew among the sage. She dug deeper as her head filled with thoughts of what it said, what kind of people put it there, what became of them. Maybe they hid in the hills, living in caves. "They could be watching." Her heart pounded with her thoughts.
She discovered the words were carved in a large circle and inside the circle was another, thicker circle of words. Several small, shallow holes were carved inside this second circle. And the sun grew hotter and the dirt harder. Her hair stuck to her forehead, dirt clung to her plain muslin dress, and the people hiding in caves receded from her thoughts. Finally her sore fingers made her decide it was worth a trip down to the shed for a shovel.
She stood at the field's edge looking down over the crest of the sage-covered hill. From there she could just see the top of the doorway to the farmhouse. West of the house was the garden with its high rail fence to keep the deer out. And twenty long steps to the east was a large shed, with its forge, tools, bins of grain, and the necessary shovel. Between the shed and the garden was the well and its windlass frame.
Below the house the land sloped down toward a dense grove of juniper trees and emerged on the other side as the rock ledge of a mesa. The hidden mesa looked out over a narrow canyon and far to the south and west was a range of high, sharp mountainssolid blue and flat as paper cut out and pasted against the sky.
As she descended the hill her father's words filled her mind: "I don't think the well will go dry, my pretty child." The words repeated themselves, rolling over and over like stones in her head. They rolled down the path through the sagebrush and far back into the dark interior of the shed. The words gradually came to a stop as she searched for the shovel. After her eyes could see in the dim light, the shovel appeared, but when she turned to go she was blinded by the patch of bright rectangular light that was the doorway and beyond it the yard. In the middle of the light, in the middle of the yard, stood the well, glowing in the bright sun.
For a moment it seemed as though the well would disappear, as though the stone wall and the windlass poles would waver and fade away, leaving only the patch of bright light framed in the dusty darkness of the shed. She walked toward the light, which grew larger and larger until she was standing in the doorway. As her eyes adjusted to the brightness she watched the well become real again. She wondered if there was a way to know if it was going dry.
Sarah walked out into the harsh light and up the hill through the sage to uncover the mysterious words hidden in dirt. She worked the awkward shovel into the reluctant earth. As she dug deeper and deeper into the dry dirt the lack of rain became frighteningit was as dry two feet down as it was on the surface.
She stopped digging and used her sore, dry fingers to feel near the base of the stone slate for the slightest trace of moisture, but there was none. She could only feel that sharp edge of fear she had heard in her father's voice.